Time for One More Salute To Bob Dole – As an early ethanol pioneer he laid the foundation for modern biofuels

January 6, 2022 |

By Doug Durante, Executive Director, Clean Fuels Development Coalition

Special to The Digest

The late December passing of Senator Robert Dole triggered an outpouring of tributes and accolades bringing back memories of a different era in American politics.  His involvement in landmark legislation on Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and countless other bills during his long Senate career is well documented and to the general public, those are issues he is known for.  Of course, he ran for president and was always a standard bearer for the Republican party.

But in terms of issues, overlooked in his tributes and eulogy was just how instrumental he was in protecting public health through his active role in the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990. When Bob Dole agreed to co-sponsor an amendment with Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, it set in motion a series of events that became the building blocks for the modern ethanol industry.  If we sketched out a family tree of biofuels today—including biochemicals and a range of bio-products, it would branch back to that amendment he and Tom Daschle crafted.

What they did was establish a year-round oxygen standard in federal reformulated gasoline.  An oxygen standard was already recognized for its ability to increase combustion and reduce tailpipe emissions. Oxygenates—primarily ethanol- had been used successfully in carbon monoxide (CO) programs throughout the country and were part of the Mobile Source provisions in the CAAA. CO was generally a cold weather, wintertime program and the oxygen requirements were seasonal. Ten percent ethanol blends raised oxygen and while extremely effective, it failed to provide enough demand to warrant year round use and to help expand ethanol production.

RFG on the other hand was generally viewed as a summertime issue designed to reduce urban smog, or ground level ozone.  What Senator Daschle proposed was to persuade his colleagues that if oxygenates were reducing carbon monoxide and other tailpipe emissions, why wouldn’t you want to get those benefits year round?  Those same particulates and CO that oxygenates had proven to reduce during the winter were a big part of the soup that makes up smog, so it made sense.  As the debate in the Senate developed, it also became obvious these oxygenates were also octane enhancers and could play a key role in replacing lead. The legislation took the next step of not only requiring oxygen but it established its own endangerment finding with regard to the octane enhancers refiners were using and therefore required EPA to reduce those toxics over time.

At that time getting Bob Dole to weigh on any legislation was significant, to say the least. As Senate Minority Leader he could bring considerable support to any measure and did.  Senator Daschle brought this idea for year round oxygen to Dole and he signed on.  The result was an historic 69-31 vote in the Senate.  For us old timers thinking back to the vote on March 29, 1990 it brings back memories of a time when the Congress put partisan differences aside and got things done. And this particular amendment to the Clean Air Act transcended party politics, Republicans and Democrats alike were all over it despite staunch petroleum industry opposition.  This bipartisanship extended to the House as well with Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Edward Madigan co-sponsoring a House version.

The Daschle-Dole amendment was so far ahead of its time that it is shocking to realize that in more than 30 years we have failed to truly embrace what they accurately termed at the time as “Clean Octane”.    Reading the Congressional Record of that debate and how they schooled their colleagues on the dangers of aromatics, benzene, ozone formation, and the benefits of oxygenates makes you want to stand up and cheer. But then you want to sit down and cry realizing little has been done and many of the health threats they identified remain as prevalent as ever.

He was an Ethanol Guy

Senator Dole made no apologies for his support of ethanol. As the U.S. was blind to the dangers of our dependence on imported oil he fought to establish and keep the tax credit that allowed ethanol to compete in the market. The oil embargoes of the 1970’s served as a wake-up call to the American public that we were at the mercy of foreign oil suppliers. A homegrown solution like ethanol could give us a hedge against imports and also address a farm crisis that demanded we find new markets for our agriculture products.  While we were working on the policy pieces inside the Capitol, outside on the grounds people like Bill Holmberg and the VanderGriend brothers were demonstrating how a still worked and that we could make our own fuel.

As a staff member of the National Alcohol Fuels Commission in 1979 I was able to interact with Senator Dole a few times since he was a member of the Commission. But I was a relatively junior guy, and even then Bob Dole was a revered figure, we were all awed by him.  We held a couple of field hearings in Kansas that I was point man on and the thought of screwing something up was terrifying.   When he showed up to these events, heads turned, the room got quiet, and all eyes and ears were on him.   As far as I can recall we must not have made any mistakes because we got out of there in one piece.  That Commission, by the way, was comprised of some of the heaviest of the heavy weights in Congress at the time—In addition to Dole we had Birch Bayh, George McGovern, Frank Church, and Mark Hatfield.  Many of the House Members went on to great things including Kansas Rep. Dan Glickman who would eventually become Secretary of Agriculture.

As key as these members were, for us as staff walking into any situation with the implied blessing of Bob Dole opened some doors for sure. Because at the time Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) was by far the dominant ethanol producer in the U.S., when Dole defended the excise tax exemption—a benefit that went to the petroleum industry, not ethanol producers—he was often referred to as Senator Ethanol, or even Senator ADM. He They played at a very high level, including helping ADM do grain deals with the Soviet Union and that only added to perception that he was ADM’s guy.

But helping to maintain a healthy demand for US Grain and defending the tax exemption, coupled with the oxygen standard he and Daschle created, began to reverse the portion of the industry ADM controlled and ethanol plants began springing up all over the country.

Evolution

By 2005 the methanol based ether MTBE was on its way out and ethanol was king of the hill. As the only oxygenate available, it was the petroleum industry that wanted flexibility to blend or not blend ethanol. Mr. Dole had left the Senate by then but in the spirit of bipartisanship of the Daschle-Dole clean octane amendment, Daschle enlisted Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana to join him in creating the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).   The success of ethanol as a fuel additive born out of the year round oxygen standard is what made the notion of an RFS feasible.  It was that oxygen provision that proved ethanol was a valuable, quality product.  It could be produced economically, it showed we can provide both feed and fuel, and that we could drive down the price of oil.  Oil companies had to admit it, automakers eventually endorsed it, and the pollution reductions were tangible.  The RFS was the natural evolution of ethanol and we all know what a game changer the RFS was.  It seemed like before the ink was dry on the first RFS, it was expanded. It opened the doorway to not just fuel but bio products, bio chemicals, and processes that are changing our world. To whatever degree advanced biofuels succeed they need to know their origins.

The only regret as we look at what Senator Dole helped put in motion is the fact that the very health hazards he and Tom Daschle identified and tried to fix remain incomplete. Their legislation condemning benzene and all the benzene derived aromatics is an endangerment finding and as such directed EPA to reduce these compounds.  Not just reduce, but do so to the greatest extent achievable as technologies present themselves.  That has been ignored for more than thirty years. Technologies, like high octane low carbon ethanol exist, and coupled with the clear ability of automakers to adjust compression to maximize efficiency and minimize emissions, it would protect the public and save lives, which is EPA’s job.

EPA has made halfhearted efforts to respond to the clear, unambiguous directives in the Daschle-Dole amendment with weak benzene limits and literally no caps on aromatics.   They failed to address this on their own, they failed to address it through the recent revision of efficiency standards, and have gone as far as to say they cannot regulate octane.  They have one more chance to get it right with a fine particulate rule the agency says they want to propose in 2022.  With a recent General Motors report that found 96% of fine particle emissions from gasoline are caused by aromatics in the fuel , we think it will be impossible  for EPA to not finally do everything in their power to reduce toxics and embrace the role of clean octane from ethanol.

Senator Dole may then look down on us and say what took you so long?  Until then, remember where so much of the biofuels industry came from and keep up the fight people like him started decades ago.

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